“I never intended to be a philosopher,” insists Wiesel. “The only role I sought was that of witness. I believed that, having survived by chance, I was duty-bound to give meaning to my survival, to justify each moment of my life.” Many optimistic assumptions about the innate goodness of human nature, humanity’s moral progress, and even love itself were incinerated at Auschwitz. Yet Wiesel, the survivor, testifies that despair is not the answer. His writings sustain the plea that death deserves no more victories and that evil should never have the last word.
“The Holocaust,” writes Wiesel, “demands interrogation and calls everything into question. Traditional ideas and acquired values, philosophical systems and social theories—all must be revised in the shadow of Birkenau.” Birkenau was the killing center at Auschwitz, and Wiesel finds its shadow putting everything to the test. Whatever the traditional ideas and acquired values that have existed, whatever the philosophical systems and social theories that human minds have produced, they were too late or too inadequate to prevent Auschwitz, or, worse, they helped pave the way to that place. The Holocaust, insists Wiesel, shows that people’s thoughts and actions must be revised in the face of those facts, unless one wishes to continue the same blindness that produced the darkness of Night. The needed revisions, of course, do not guarantee a better outcome. Yet failure to use the Holocaust to call all of humankind into question diminishes chances to mend the world.
“The questions,” contends Wiesel, “remain questions.” He does not place his greatest confidence in answers. Answers—especially when they take the form of philosophical or theological systems—make him suspicious. No matter how hard people try to resolve the most important issues, questions remain, and rightly so. Typically, however, the human propensity may be to quest for certainty. Wiesel’s urging is to resist that temptation, especially when it aims to settle things that ought to remain unsettled and unsettling. If answers aim to settle things, their ironic, even tragic, outcome is that they often produce disagreement, division, and death. Hence, Wiesel wants questions to be forever fundamental.
Wiesel’s point is not that responses to questions are simply wrong; they have their place and can be essential. Nevertheless, questions deserve lasting priority because they invite continuing inquiry, further dialogue, shared wonder, and openness. Resisting final solutions, these ingredients can create friendship in ways that answers never can.
“’And yet—and yet.’ This,” says Wiesel, “is the key expression in my work.” Always suspicious of answers but never failing for questions, Wiesel structures problems not simply for their own sake but to inquire, “What is the next step?” Reaching an apparent conclusion, he moves forward. Such forms of thought reject easy paths in favor of hard ones.
Wiesel’s “and yet—and yet” affirms that it is more important to seek than to find, more important to question than to answer, more important to travel than to arrive. The point is that it can be dangerous to believe what one wants to believe, deceptive to find things too clear, just as it is dishonest not to strive to bring them into focus. Even the endings to Wiesel’s stories resist leaving his readers with fixed conclusions. Instead, he wants his readers to feel his “and yet—and yet,” which provides hope that people may keep moving to choose life and not to end it. In short, Wiesel seeks the understanding that lives in friendship—understanding that includes tentativeness and fallibility, comprehension that looks for error and revises judgment when error is found, and recognition that knowing is not a matter of final conviction but of continuing dialogue.
(The entire section contains 3137 words.)
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